SMALL KINGDOMS by Anastasia Hobbet

Book Quote:

“He trained his eye on the barren land below, thinking of the concentration of human history here, in such a small corner of the globe—and yet how clean and innocent the desert looked from the air. After a lifetime spent in the urban landscapes of California, he liked this easy legibility of form, the broad and simple sweep of it, and played with the notion that his life here could reflect the same spacious characteristics.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (JAN 27, 2011)

In the period right after the first Gulf War, an uneasiness hung all over Kuwait—its residents forever waiting for Saddam Hussein to strike again. As an American expat in the country for five years around that same time period, author Anastasia Hobbet witnessed this unease first hand. It forms a perfect backdrop for her novel, Small Kingdoms, which tells the story of an assorted set of Kuwaiti and American characters.

One upper-class Kuwaiti family includes Mufeeda, the wife, and her doctor husband, Saaleh. They live in a huge mansion with their kids (who, they worry, are fast becoming too Americanized), Saaleh’s domineering mother and a whole assortment of maids and help. Across the street lives an American expat family—Kit who is a wide-eyed American who is trying to go beyond her humble Oklahoma roots; husband, Jack, who works at the Kuwait branch of an American company and their two children.

At the hospital where Saaleh works is an American doctor—Theo, a recent transplant to the country. Theo takes lessons in Arabic from a Palestinian woman in the country—Hanaan. The two are rebels from their individual cultures in many ways and it is perhaps inevitable that they soon fall in love.

The story that moves this novel forward revolves around the help, usually provided by South Asians. There have already been three cases of severe abuse and death of South Asian maids recently but nobody is paying attention. “…They’re mistreated and yet that fails to move us because we consider them so far beneath us,” says a local of the South Asian workers, “They’re cheap and expendable.”

But then, a similar situation arises close to home. Mufeeda’s cook, Emmanuela, a young immigrant from Goa, India, has been sneaking food and trying to get it through to a severely abused woman who is working next door. Deprived of food and fresh air, this woman is enduring the worst abuse and it is only slowly that word about her situation leaks out. Soon most of the primary characters—especially the women—will play a part in saving this woman from what would be an assuredly miserable fate.

Small Kingdoms succeeds in large part because of the tremendous observational powers of its author. Hobbet’s unerring rendition of even the smallest of details works to create a fascinating portrait of the Kuwaitis for sure, but also of the relationships they have with people outside their immediate circle. Very few authors are able to weave these kinds of precisely observed details effectively into stories (Jhumpa Lahiri is one who readily comes to mind) but Hobbet does so beautifully. In one instance Theo thinks back to his interactions with South Asians in his native California, when he meets an Indian doctor. He notices “the same blunt style he’d noted among newly-arrived Indians in the U.S.: Where do you live? What is your salary?” Hobbet writes. Even this seemingly insignificant detail is a precise capture of the community.

Class and status are important considerations in the society—Hanaan, native to Palestine, is considered a “bidoon” (a person without a state) and Hobbet writes about the class system that exists not just between the rich Kuwaitis and their help but also within the help itself. The driver for example, complains when his task is handed over to the gardener. “But he is just a gardener,” he says.

Especially interesting is the nuance Hobbet paints even the Americans with. To the Kuwaitis, Americans all seem like one big homogenous group: “Perhaps this was the essence of Americans. They could be fine people: sincere, well-educated, and yet very raw,” Mufeeda thinks. Yet, it is obvious that class plays out even internally within the expat community. Kit, who comes from a small community in Oklahoma, finds it difficult to get used to the idea of having someone else do the cooking or the dishes. She also doesn’t readily identify with other American women expats who come from presumably more urban backgrounds. “Everything’s alien to me, even other Americans,” she says.

As the book moves along, Hobbet also shows how many characters must face compromises that pit their cultural values against what they believe is right. The final choice might not always be what the reader (or the character) wants but it’s certainly understandable.

In a final sequence of events, the women in Small Kingdoms act in concert to save the starving Indian maid. In banding together they prove capable of uniting despite their cultural differences. What’s more it’s apparent that these bold acts are as much of a challenge for Kit as they are for Mufeeda. This is the only part of the novel, which I thought strained credulity a bit. Some readers might find it hard to believe that the ever-diffident, conformist Mufeeda would ultimately suddenly garner so much inner strength as to do what she does in the end.

The increasing tension surrounding the maid’s condition and the women’s attempts to free her is tied to a separate accelerating set of events—another strike from Saddam is imminent and the American families are ordered to evacuate. So essentially Kit must take part in this heroic effort as she races against the clock, trying to wrap it all up before she boards a plane for England with her children. This pacing too seems a little forced and eventually a little melodramatic.

In the end though, Small Kingdoms will be treasured for its contribution to literature about a place that is little understood. Hobbet’s enormous powers of observation allow her to weave a tale that is an insightful peek into daily life in Kuwait. The picture she paints with a varied and interesting set of characters is vivid and vibrant. You can almost taste the sand in your mouth.

What’s especially interesting is how much Kit and Mufeeda—women from two radically different cultures—have in common. It is Hobbet’s ability to shine light on their shared humanity that ultimately makes Small Kingdoms a moving read.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Permanent Press (January 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Anastasia Hobbet
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another novel with insight into a Middle East country:

In the Walled Gardens by Anahita Firouz


January 27, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Middle East, World Lit

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